I recommend the following articles from the past month:

Graeme Wood, “The Future of College?The Atlantic (September 2014)

Sara Mosle, “Building Better Teachers,” The Atlantic (September 2014)

Ben Hewitt, “We Don’t Need No Education,” Outside (September 2014)

Brenda Santos, “Embracing the Challenge of the New AP U.S. History Exam,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association (September 2014)

Nathan Heller, “Poison Ivy,” New Yorker (September 1, 2014)

Michael Muhammad Knight, “I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them,” Washington Post (September 3, 2014)

Alexis Okeowo, “Freedom Fighter,” New Yorker (September 8, 2014)

Joe Dejka, “New AP history course outline takes flak from the right,” Omaha World-Herald (September 13, 2014)

Nick Paumgarten, “Take Picture,” New Yorker (September 15, 2014)

I was talking with a colleague today, and he said something very simple that nevertheless made me stop and think. He said of one student, “He does his work. He’s not going to do any more than than he has to, of course, but he gets his stuff done.” The student in question is not an academic superstar by any means, but my colleague is right: he does his work.

I’ve had countless students like this over the years, but for some reason, I never stopped to think about in quite this way. As our conversation continued to play in my head this evening, it occurred to me that we don’t really have a label for students like this. We have our “overachievers” and our “underachievers,” but we rarely talk about the kids who are simply “achievers.”

I wonder why. It’s as if simply achieving is not enough. To be worthy of our attention (that is: teachers’, college admissions officers’, prospective employers’), you can’t just do what you’re supposed to do. You have to do more. How much more? As much as you can, of course. And if you do more, we’re going to push you to do even more than that. More, more, always more. Are kids so wrong to say, “No thanks, not for me. I’m good with a C if it means I get to enjoy my life a bit during these four years of high school?”

As an educator and on a certain level, I get it. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in action. Except when it’s not. Sometimes, we’re not expanding kids’ comfort zones. Sometimes, we’re simply pushing to see just how much kids can handle. (And, oh yeah, because we “have to” sort them into honors classes, elite colleges, and competitive labor markets.) And we wonder why “kids these days” are grade-grubbing, perfectionist, careerist, etc., etc., etc. As Denise Pope argued in her book Doing School, it seems that we are indeed creating “a generation of stressed-out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”

I haven’t posted much here in a long while. My last post detailed the reasons for my last hiatus. I’ll be far less descriptive this time. Suffice it to say, the new job (I guess it’s not so new anymore) doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Or rather, that kind of time is not readily apparent in my schedule; it must be carved out. I don’t know that I’ll do any better this time around, but I do miss writing, so I hope to try.

Year 2 in the “new” school is well underway, and I can already tell a difference. I’m more comfortable with the culture and the personalities, more confident in my interactions with both students and colleagues. I’m also teaching a new course (theology) for the first time this year, which has proven thus far to be invigorating, and I will serve as the head coach of the JV basketball team. All in all, there’s a lot going on.

Last year was a blur, and in some ways, a rather rude awakening. Having spent five years teaching at an all-girls school (and mostly teaching junior and senior girls, at that), I suddenly found myself in classrooms and a dormitory hall full of freshman boys. Talk about a culture shock! As I’ve come to tell people, the difference–in terms of maturity–between an 18 year-old girl and a 14 year-old boy is not four years; it’s about ten! So the past year has been an eye-opening experience, for sure. I’ve been forced to confront my deeply held beliefs about education, and at times, I’ve found some of them wanting. I had grown too comfortable in my previous school, I think, and though there are aspects of that job that I miss quite a bit, I believe that stepping out of my comfort zone has forced me to become a better teacher.

One adjustment–though it comes as no surprise–is the lack of time and mental/emotional distance that comes with working at a boarding school. During the three years that I lived off-campus at my previous school, I was a much better teacher (in the strictly academic sense) because I had more control over my evenings. I could plan more thoughtfully and reflect more regularly on my classroom practice. But the beautiful opportunity (and challenge) of boarding schools is that teaching is rarely defined in strictly academic terms. Over the past year, I’ve found it rewarding to have difficult conversations with students about their lives outside the classroom, and at times, I wonder if those types of interactions will not have a greater impact that what I teach in the classroom. I suspect they might. Despite the adjustment, I’ve also found it rewarding to help boys as they mature into young men. I’m increasingly coming to believe that schools and society are not generally friendly places for teenage boys, and they need help as they learn what it means to be a man. But that’s another post for another day.

So it’s been almost a year since I lasted posted here, and much has changed since that time. When I last posted (early December 2012), I was anticipating a busy spring. Little did I know. Things always seem to get busy in February with the start of baseball season (check the blog’s archives–or lack thereof–for evidence of this phenomenon), and on top of that, I was gearing up for a national job search.

Shortly after that post, job referrals started coming in, and we were off to the races. Between writing approximately 60 cover letters to schools all over the country, doing numerous phone/Skype interviews, traveling for three hiring fairs (Atlanta, Atlanta, and Boston) and six campus interviews (Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia), baseball, and–oh, yeah–teaching a full courseload, the spring flew by. The end result of all of that, though, was that I found a great new opportunity, and my wife and I are excited to be back in our home state.

I had started my search with a three-pronged mission: 1) to find a school with a baseball program where I could teach and coach–as opposed to teaching in one school and coaching in another, which had been the norm for me; 2) to find a school that was very intentional in its curricular design and committed to a more constructivist approach to education; and 3) to find a school that was, ideally, in Virginia. As my travelogue above indicates, I was willing to settle for two out of three, but in the end, I found an opportunity that accomplished all three. I feel like I hit the jackpot with my new school. (I wasn’t necessarily committed to boarding schools, but I did see rejoining a residential community as a definite plus. Make it a fourfecta!)

I remember spotting this particular opportunity on the NAIS job board. It was the end of my Spring Break, and I had just completed three campus interviews in three different states in four days, and I was exhausted and ready to put the search in the rear view mirror. Although I liked all of the schools that I visited that week, I vividly remember saying to my wife, “Well, I just found the job I really want.” I submitted my resume, and from there, things moved pretty quickly.

Of course, once I accepted the position, the focus shifted from finding a job to planning a move. That meant making all of the little repairs to our house that suddenly seemed more urgent, interviewing realtors and preparing the house for market, and hiring movers. It also meant figuring out the housing situation here on campus, and paring down our belongings as we moved from a 3BR/2BA house with a deck, a garage, and an attic to a 2BR/2BA apartment with a small porch and no deck or attic. Then it meant shuttling across the North Carolina/Virginia border several times as we painted the new apartment, moved valuable or fragile belongings ourselves, and closed on the sale of our house. (Fortunately, our house sold quickly and relatively painlessly–no small relief given the housing market woes over the last few years.)

Once we were moved in and unpacked (early August), my attention shifted to planning for the school year. I usually spend a significant portion of July pulling together ideas/resources/etc. for the year ahead, so the start to this year felt a little like I was flying blind, but it’s gone OK. (Does this mean that perhaps I don’t have to work quite so hard in the summer anymore? That would be a nice “bonus” after five years in the classroom.)

Anyway, needless to say, there hasn’t been much time for blogging. However, we’re now–more or less–settled into our new place, the school year is rolling along relatively smoothly, and I’ve been itching to write again. Given that I’m back on the dorm duty rotation and will be helping out with JV basketball in addition to baseball, there’s a good chance that the busy season will start in November instead of February. With that in mind, I don’t know how long my regular posts here will last this time around, but I’m looking forward to getting back to using this as a place where I can “wonder aloud” about teaching and education in general.

The Learning Pond, “Template for Faculty Poster Conference via St. Andrew’s, Potomac”
“Poster sessions have been a cornerstone of academic conferences in many disciplines for decades – but not education. And this is strange because it is a perfect forum to share, examine and reflect on the work we do. This event not only professionalizes our pedagogy, but it also encourages an informal, creative space and time for conversations among colleagues to happen. This event is a beacon and a forum. It inspires us to keep rigorously and enthusiastically addressing that fundamental question, ‘what is great teaching?'”

Granted, but…, “On Feedback: 13 practical examples per your requests”
“As readers may know, my article on feedback in the September edition of Educational Leadership has been one of the most widely read and downloaded articles of the year, according to ASCD data. That’s gratifying feedback! . . . But numerous people have also written saying that while they liked the piece, they wished that I had provided more specific examples of how to design in such feedback, how it all works in practice. So: Voila! Below, find thirteen examples of how teachers have made feedback (as opposed to advice and evaluation) more central to their work with students.”

New York Times, “Regrets of an Accomplished Child”
“I was one of the middling sort, endowed with a reasonable amount of natural ability. But, I figured, if all went according to my carefully hatched plan, I could graduate with all my “to do” boxes neatly checked off, my teachers impressed if not wowed, and the ultimate achievement: an acceptance letter from the Ivy League college of my choice. It all went as planned. I didn’t learn much of anything.”

The Historical Society, “San Francisco, the 1906 Earthquake, the Progressive Era”
“San Francisco has become for me the quintessential Progressive Era city for another reason, too. In 1905, a photographer attached a camera to a trolley car traveling along Market Street. The result was a nine-minute recording of urban life before the reforms of the Progressive Era. There are no stop signs, no traffic lights. Children are playing in the streets and running in front of the cars. People are walking, horses are pulling carts, and automobiles are in a free-for-all on undivided roads. It makes you realize how many of the world we take for granted today was, in fact, a product of the efforts of reformers to draw up some rules to make the modern world safer.”

The New York Times, “A School Distanced from Technology Faces Its Intrusion”
“Past the chicken coop and up a hill, in a spot on campus where the wooden buildings of the Mountain School can seem farther away than the mountains of western New Hampshire, there sometimes can be found a single bar, sometimes two, of cellphone reception. The spot, between the potato patch and a llama named Nigel, is something of an open secret at the school in this remote corner of Vermont where simplicity is valued over technology. ‘We’re at the periphery of civilization here,’ said Doug Austin, a teacher. But that is about to change.”

Blogg-ed Indetermination, “Left to Their Own Devices”
“But schools are foremost places of learning and teaching and the role of IT is to facilitate rather than to encumber these ends. Given the role that technology plays in the lives of teachers and students it therefore makes sense that IT departments provide a safe haven in which its users to become self-sufficient, confident managers of digital devices. Yes, some users may screw up their computers. Some may inadvertently download a computer virus. And I can practically guarantee that many users will store personal data on their computers. But I also know that if you treat people with respect and given them responsibility that the vast majority will demonstrate that they deserve your trust.”

Education Rethink, “Post-Election Thought”
“What if the other side isn’t heartless or lazy or even misinformed? What if they simply see the world differently and cannot fathom the notion that you have the same end in mind: a healthy, strong, free, safe nation? This isn’t a call to put aside our differences. If anything, I think it might be a time to clarify the big questions about the role of government in our lives and what that means in both social and economic terms. Howeevr, this is a call to recognize that the differences in worldview do not mean the other side is inherently evil.”

it’s about learning, “Gijs van Wulfen’s map for innovation”

The History Channel This Is Not…, “Historical Haikus – Final Exam Edition”
“So, I just finished administering my Fall Trimester final exams and am now in the midst of grinding through the grading in order to maximize my holiday merriment. However, I stole an extra credit idea from one of my colleagues who had offered a few additional points on the exam for writing pertinent historical haikus. This idea turned out great, as a number of students wrote very entertaining and some pretty insightful haikus. I’ve posted a number of them below, and for the sake of haiku fidelity, I omitted any that veered from the syllable pattern in spite of the fact that some of those were really good. . . .

Sparta and Athens,
Fighting over their power,
Caused damage to both.

Away with the knights
And down with Feudalism
Renaissance begins.”

The Historical Society, “Christmas Creep and Other Joyous Holiday Traditions”
“Remember the time when Christmas was simple and less commercial, when you could step out of your door into a Currier and Ives print.  No?  How about a $29 Thomas Kinkade ‘Memories of Christmas’ print?  Precisely.  One of the greatest of all holiday traditions is recalling a holiday seasonhistorian Stephen Nissenbaum reminds us in his superb book, The Battle For Christmas—that never existed at all.”

John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours

it’s about learning, “Brain Food: Education @Unboundary”
“We also enter this challenge offering Brain Food: a proven approach for shifting the din of idea-sharing into a useful design-thinking discussion. Brain Food is curated provocation. It is both question and answer. It is both perspective and focus. We welcome you to Volume One, Number One of Unboundary’s Education Brain Food. And we look forward to the discussion it opens among us.”

Seth’s Blog, “Non-profits have a charter to be innovators”
“The biggest, best-funded non profits have an obligation to be leaders in innovation, but sometimes they hesitate. . . . The magic of their status is that no one is expecting a check back, or a quarterly dividend. They’re expecting a new, insightful method that will solve the problem once and for all. Go fail. And then fail again. Non-profit failure is too rare, which means that non-profit innovation is too rare as well. Innovators understand that their job is to fail, repeatedly, until they don’t.”

Am I spreading myself too thin? More importantly, perhaps: Am I spreading my students too thin?

Lately, I’ve been giving some serious thought to this question. Beyond simple content coverage, there are so many things that I want to accomplish in my classroom, and every year, it seems, I add a new wrinkle or two. I come back from my summer adventures in professional development excited to try something I’ve learned, but I never seem to take anything off my plate.

In my American history classes, for instance, I now try (or have tried) to incorporate a year-long scholarly research project/paper, a class blog, (almost) daily Harkness discussions, explicit instruction in historical thinking, classroom community-building and experiential learning activities, project-/problem-based learning, and some form of public speaking.

I believe that all of these add to my students’ experience, and none of them has detracted significantly from my core commitments to critical exploration of the past and a focus on strong persuasive writing—at least not yet. I do fear, however, that I may be doing my students a slight disservice.

In some ways, my approach to educational methods runs counter to my approach to historical content. When it comes to content, I tend to favor a “less is more” approach, slowing down to explore smaller chunks of material but in much greater depth. As I reflect on all of the things I’ve added to my “pedagogical toolbox” over the years, though, it occurs to me that I have been emphasizing variety of experience over depth of engagement.

Would it not be better to pare down some of these things to give my students a clear, sustained focus and the opportunity to truly master one or two experiences? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I think it might.

The problem is, I find myself pulled in two directions at once: a somewhat traditional desire to focus on the things I do well—that is, historical thinking and clear written and verbal communication—and a nagging sense that education must evolve to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. To be sure, I believe that the things I do well are timeless in their importance, but that’s not to say they’re more important than the others.

These two roads are diverging in my proverbial yellow wood–which path should I choose? Again, I don’t know; I’ll have to keep wrestling with the question. (I suspect a lot of teachers are confronting similar concerns these days—at least, I hope they are.)

All of this said, I do think that this is one reason why Bo Adams’ exploration of “pedagogical master planning” is so attractive to me. I think all of my various approaches have merit, and I want my students to experience them all, so in the absence of a comprehensive master plan, I end up trying to do more than I can successfully handle. If I knew that students would encounter some of these things in other classes or in co-curricular/extra-curricular settings, I might feel less pressure to incorporate them into my class.

By establishing a master plan, then, schools could achieve a sort of “internal comparative advantage.” Teachers who are best equipped to provide students with Experience A are charged with doing so, while Experience B falls to those teachers who are best suited for that particular task. In the end, as I see it, the master plan would not be an exercise in administrative autocracy or classroom conformity, but rather an attempt to deploy a school’s resources–human, financial, natural, technological, etc.–in the most productive way possible. Students could enjoy a rich variety of educational experiences, and faculty would be freed up to focus on the things that they do best, all in pursuit of a cohesive common goal.

(Of course, it’s possible that I’ve totally misrepresented Bo’s ideas here, so I welcome his input. Either way, I look forward to reading Bo’s ideas on this topic as he continues to flesh them out.)


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